Art & The Anti-Folk Impulse

No knock against Keb' Mo'- a fine blues roots artist- but if his Slow Down album pulls down a blues Grammy on Wednesday which by all reasonable sensibilities belongs to Guy Davis, how many Grammy voters will ponder the surreal poetry of his cover of Robert Johnson's 1937 classic "Love In Vain"... "The blue light was my blues/the red light was my mind"?

On the other hand, the sometimes surrealistic flights of lyric spewed by Woodstock's eclectically inventive songwriter Paul McMahon, which can gush like a lava flow guided only by the force of their own impetus, can also avail themselves to their aut hor's explanations of logical progression. For example, McMahon, who has instigated the first local appearance of "the anti-folk hero of Avenue A" (known loopingly in sub-circles as "Lach") to share his billing at Joshua's this (Friday?), can provide a map to loose-legged tunes like "Wa-Ma-Chi," which grows its lines like worms coming out of the head of those trick matches you can get at a novelty shop.

Sung solo, the tune might appear on first take to be a strung-together construct of rhyming nonsense but McMahon's new sound and strategy, which employs the buoying influence of harmonized and quite feminine backing vocals from Julia Nichols and Diane Penz, adds substance and conviction to a stream-of-consciousness aesthetic as free-falling as a rain storm.

"I wanted to work with other people; I was feeling lonely up there," McMahon deadpans modestly, adding notions of reaching for a younger audience after 25 years of mostly solo work. "There's also a change in the way I've been seeing myself in terms of what a singer-songwriter is in relation to the rest of the world."

McMahon came to music in childhood and, at 20, was singing blues in the days of Black Power until, without referencing Norman Mailer's famous '50's essay "The White Negro", he observes "I was persuaded that it was immoral for a white person to play the blues. I always had sort of identified myself as black, so I stepped back from that and gave up music altogether for 7 years to do conceptual art."

With his visual career going well at 27 in 1980, McMahon reached another pivot which coincided with the cresting of the punk backlash movement and "Saturn's Return" (which may be an astrological reference or a forgotten punk band) that must be seen in the context of the times. Punk was in large part a reaction to a dramatic and historically underappreciated corporate decision to derail countercultural music and redesign the FM airwaves. Never much of a commercial success, the rebellious zest of Punk n onetheless had far-reaching impact beyond the effect of blase replacements (like disco, etc.) with which the mega-music movers stuffed the market. Even with psychic results like making audiences "uptight" considered as "valid artistic goals" (as Robert Palmer points out in his Rock & Roll: An Unruly History), the idea of music as an art which stirs things up lent legitimacy to often inept musical effort, especially in the eyes of youth. The alternative to "making it" in "pop" was, in Palmer's words; "Be a n innovator, march to the beat of your own drum, go against the grain of the times, make your statement, sit back and starve and hope you become a legend before you die of old age (or malnutrition). This is the way of 'art.' From a pop point of view, art means nothing."

This is the core rationale at the myriad stages of McMahon's career(s). A straight-faced humorist whose series of Woodstock bumper stickers has given us all a chuckle, joke book author and tv satirist, inventor of mousekatoys and other gadgets, improm ptu "Rock and Roll Therapist" turning audience neurosis into instant songs; it's a bit difficult to know when, if ever, to take him "seriously." The line is drawn in sand that he continuously dances upon barefoot but, in just following his song production, there are dead-serious messages to be found- even if he can't force the twinkle out of them.

He started writing "artsy punk" tunes, releasing singles and a vinyl lp; "When 99% of the people like one thing, I want the other thing. I've always been very contrary; it's part of my nature," he explains. "So, when people were doing loud, industrial, satanic music, I did a 180 and started doing cutesy little songs to make people laugh, in the vein of Jonathan Richman."

In this period there were incongruous red polka-dots everywhere around McMahon- all because of his anger at tides and circumstance; "When I quit making art, all my friends (on the Village art scene) became overnight stars," he recalls. "I lived with an artist and assisted her but I hadn't been active and hadn't been showing. Then, in 1985, I realized that if you just do one thing and keep doing it over and over, it's absolutely guaranteed to make you successful. So, I thought I'd just make polka-dot paintings and, sooner or later, they'd be hugely successful and I'd have my revenge." But this determination inevitably clashed with an inner nature which recognized that there can be no stagnation in artistic identity and other forms of art pushed their way onto his canvas. "I've always done everything just absolutely wrong for my career but it's been interesting, if not very profitable," he notes.

Dealing with issues of recovery and becoming "more introspective," McMahon spent a few years turning out songs "diametrically opposite" to his ditties- "songs that make you cry." There was a stretch of "uncontrolled paranoia," and fear of leaving his abode; family dynamics, therapy, "polarity massages and becoming aware of my subtle body and spiritual bliss and healing" which led to his period at the Wittenberg Center and ordainment as an interfaith minister. His music became more spiritually oriented, prophetic, Dylansque and surrealistic; reflecting dreamlike imagery.

Then, surprise, another change in direction. Asked to describe what he calls what he's writing now, McMahon replies on the beat "Hit Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks...only moodier." And, sure enough, some of the newer stuff, like "You Might Be a Fox," features popish chords and sensibilities which he's been taking to "The Fort" with the fresh formation.

Before teaming with Nichols and Penz (who adds a moody violin to his "Los Derperados" ballad), McMahon started playing duo with Shansi Ruhe at lower Manhattan spots like the Sidewalk Cafe and edging into the Anti-folk scene created in the 1980's by Lach, whose Rivington Street after-hours club, the Fort, (named after Alira Kurosawa's film The Hidden Fortress) migrated to other locations after being closed by the police in '89. Artists like Michelle Shocked, Beck, Richard Lloyd, Ani DiFranco, Brenda Kahn, the Novellas and the late Jeff Buckley spread their wings at Fort shows. Even Bob Dylan hatted in for a set.

Most recently it's been "the Fort at the Sidewalk Cafe" and anti-folk's chief host and guru, Lach, is kicking off a new CD tour with the Joshua's gig. A national release on Fortified Records, produced by Richard Barone and featuring such Woodstock-fam iliar artists as Deni Bonet, the album is named Blang after the first chord on its opening track and ranges from flat-out punk to solo acoustic, as he'll be doing at the gig.

Lach comments that since he's been using a friend's Phoenicia cabin for getaways, he's wanted to play in nearby Woodstock and bring in a first-hand sense of anti-folk.

"I started (the anti-folk movement) in the 1980's as a rebellion against an old West Village folk scene that had gone stale after the Dylan, Ochs, Paxton days," Lach declared, reminding us of the origins of punk itself and Paul McMahon's blessedly inh erent contrariety. "It was sort of a hybrid of the energy of the '70's English punk scene with the American West Village kind of sound and it came out sounding 'anti-folk.' It's a singer-songwriter punk-folk kind of aesthetic."

Without polka-dots.

-Gary Alexander